What Are Education Deserts?

By Pretta VanDible Stallworth

By definition, education deserts are: “Areas where a significant number or share of residents is far from schools, where ‘far’ is more than ½-mile in urban areas and more than 10 miles in rural areas. Distance, however, is not the only or most important factor of education deserts.

Limited access to equitable high-quality pre-school, primary, secondary, post-secondary education, or other sources of appropriate and affordable career preparedness may make it harder for some Americans to gain acceptable quality of life. Expanding the availability of exposure to appropriate and rigorous instruction via affordable education by developing and equipping public schools in communities with limited access is an important part of the American dream.

There are many ways to define which areas are considered ‘education deserts’ and many ways to measure education access for individuals and for neighborhoods. Most measures and definitions take into account at least some of the following indicators of access:

  • Accessibility to sources of high-quality education, as measured by distance to a school or by the number of schools in an area.
  • Historical under-education or high levels of uneducated area residents as the result of public school governance.
  • Individual-level resources that may affect accessibility, such as family income or vehicle availability.
  • Neighborhood-level indicators of resources, such as the average income of the neighborhood and the availability of public transportation.” 1

Urban education districts have struggled with educating the masses, among those the students who need more than a standard classroom experience. “Creative interventions” have proven results with limited capacity. For the most part, a large percentage of urban students are marginally educated.

Education desert systems (EDs) have produced undereducated individuals for decades.

Education desert systems (EDs) have produced undereducated individuals for decades. The feeder pattern traffics students through neighborhood schools in the community. The pattern of elementary, middle and high schools is crucial to establishing a comprehensive education curriculum. In HISD, the magnet school program has maintained to establish unique, focused academic disciplines for students who know what their career interests are. The traditional feeder pattern, without a magnet program in place or comprehensive academic programs, suffers from high attrition rates. However, the program now moves large numbers of traditionally disadvantaged students away from their home-based school feeder pattern and into distant magnet school feeder patterns with insufficient student populations. The consequence is an education desert.

This crisis has reached critical mass. As the inner city thrives with student population growth, the community feeder pattern dwindles and magnet feeder patterns increase due to more desirable programs. However, families with Title I eligible students cannot afford to live near the magnet school of their choice. The result of this “inverse flow” is that students are forced to spend their academic lives in transit, along with the Title I funding required for each traditionally disadvantaged student. The parallel crisis is that students who are labeled “unsuitable according to criteria” by principal decision do not have access to much needed academic programs. Many of these students fall through the education cracks, increasing the dropout rates in community school feeder patterns.

How do we address this compounded crisis? How do we engage the community to change the parallel systems in disadvantaged feeder patterns? What do we do?

Read Education Deserts Series
Part One: What Are Education Deserts?
Part Two: Education Deserts Drive Academic Traffic,…Away!
Part Three: Demographic Relevance vs. Political Priority

Pretta VanDible Stallworth

Pretta VanDible Stallworth has transitioned from parent volunteer to PTO president, from student advocate to college professor, and from community spokesperson to governing board member. These collective journeys have forged a committed purpose. She is dedicated to the equitable education for all students.

1Adapted from the definition for “food desert.”

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